Updated: Jul 30
By William Spivey
Occasionally, I’ve seen articles or statistics about the number of lynchings in America. In every instance, a time period was referenced, never starting before 1865, when the Civil War ended. Here is a sample of some of the titles.
Even the articles with no dates in the title inevitably had a start date not before 1865. I finally asked the question, how many lynchings took place before the Civil War ended instead of after? Since they weren’t being recorded as lynchings, what were they called? Getting records of livestock killed on a farm was easier than enslaved people lynched. My attempts at research got me nowhere in terms of an aggregate number. Let’s start by defining a lynching to be sure we’re discussing the same thing.
“The administration of summary punishment, especially death, upon a suspected, accused, or convicted person by a mob acting without legal process or authority.”
Many people think of lynchings as only involving hangings, but it’s still a lynching, no matter the method of death. The key components are a group of people killing someone without the benefit of a trial.
Differing versions of the origin of the term date back well before 1865. Captain William Lynch claims to have coined “Lynch law” as early as 1780, and another story attributed it to Charles Lynch in 1782. The most infamous version credits Captain Willie Lynch of the West Indies, who allegedly wrote a letter discrediting lynching but offering several steps to train enslaved people to avoid the waste of valuable property. The “Willie Lynch Letter” has been widely discredited as false, purportedly given as a speech in 1712 but never seen until 1970. That letter is a topic unto itself, and I will write about it soon. Without a doubt, the term lynching dates back to well before the Civil War. Before 1865, what they did was thought of as executions or justice.
We know that lynchings took place in 1831 after the Nat Turner Rebellion; Turner eluded capture for six weeks, during which enslaved people across several states were lynched in retribution or for fear they, too, would revolt. Lynchings related to Nat Turner continued for months after Turner was caught, hung, beheaded, and dissected. While the actual revolt involved approximately 55 enslaved people, and as many as two hundred Black people were lynched in revenge.
After the German Coast Uprising in 1811, well over a hundred enslaved people were lynched; that doesn’t include those who did receive trials. Almost 100 heads were removed and placed on pikes as an admonition against more uprisings.
These are instances I knew where to look for examples of lynchings. The typical pre-war lynching was of a runaway slave, someone who struck their master, looked the wrong way at a white woman or learned to read. On many Southern plantations, enslaved people greatly outnumbered whites. Well-regulated militias, slave patrols, whippings, and lynchings kept control. Lynchings weren’t just retribution; they were a tool to control the behavior of the enslaved. Bodies were left hanging in places they would be seen. Lynchings were often conducted in public, sometimes after church when the crowd would be largest.
Lynchings certainly did take place before 1865, though America has chosen not to record them. While mostly involving Black people, they included some white people, Native Americans, and Mexicans. In 1871, several hundred Chinese and Asian Americans were lynched in California.
Lynchings are a part of American history that you won’t read much about in a Florida schoolbook. It seems you won’t find references to them before 1865 anywhere, at least not by that name. Whether you call it frontier justice, or just executions, I can only wonder how many thousands of Black people were lynched before the Civil War and how that compares to the several thousand lynched afterward. I suspect I’ll never know the answer.